How DaniLeigh Went From Background Dancer to Sharing Tracks With Lil Baby
Shiggy may have created the "In My Feelings" challenge, but last summer, singer DaniLeigh helped take the social media craze around the world. The 23-year-old Def Jam darling went viral (<10 million views!) after she hopped out of a moving car and landed a perfect sequence coordinated to Drake's ubiquitous Scorpion hit that was on its way to Billboard's No. 1 spot.
The Los Angeles transplant (by way of Miami) has a deeper connection to music, though. After being raised as a professionally trained dancer, Dani began to dabble with music in her early teens. She was discovered by Prince (she wrote and directed his "Breakfast Can Wait" video at age 18) and toured with artists like J. Cole and Jeremih as a background dancer before beginning a harder pivot to a career in front of the spotlight with the release of her 2017 project, Summer With Friends. In late 2018, she released The Plan, a fun 13-track banger that meets '90s R&B-inspired vibes with trap-rap experimentation, iconic hip-hop samples with features from Lil Baby and YG.
Now dancing to her own tunes, DaniLeigh sat down for XXL's singer-focused Let Em Know column to speak about her hip-hop connections, working with YBN Nahmir and how Drake changed her life in more ways than one.
XXL: How did you get into music?
DaniLeigh: As a little girl I always sang. I was shy about it. I never really thought I could sing, just because I couldn't like belt or do runs. I had like little covers when I was 14 that I would put out.
What kind of covers?
I covered "Marvin's Room" by Drake, "So Beautiful" by Musiq Soulchild, Alicia Keys' "Superwoman." I was dance training when I was 12, so I got into hip-hop, jazz, ballet, all that. I was signed to a dance agency back in Florida and they were located in L.A. My mom would try to do [my] auditions back and forth but it was just too much money. She was like, "Let's stay in L.A. for like a month, see how things go." [We] ended up staying for nine years.
Did things pop off right away?
They didn't pop off right away but I guess I was a really good dancer. I used to get booked a lot, so we stayed there because we started gaining traction. Then I met my producer Yonni. I started working with him a lot. Started writing. I was like 18, maybe 17. I started getting in my bag, hopping on different types of tracks and developing my voice. And now I'm here.
What rappers did you listen to growing up?
Drake was like my No. 1. He was super relatable. He always came with it. He's so versatile and he's a smart businessman. He be hopping on the new wave and new artists. I love J. Cole, too. I was actually on tour with him as a dancer with Jeremih.
It was the Forest Hills tour. I watched his show every single night because he's so good. So those are my favorites. I think Lil Baby is fire, too. Lil Baby and Gunna.
Drake has built his career on marrying hip-hop and R&B, singing with rapping. Is that something that you modeled your sound on?
Yeah, I think so, since he is a big inspiration of mine. I feel like I have those influences from him because I can tap into the R&B Dani, the hip-hop Dani, the trap Dani—I got those sides to me.
Were you surprised when your "In My Feelings" dance video went viral?
It was crazy. I did not expect that at all. The first day I dropped it, it reached a million [views] and I gained 200,000 followers. After that it just kept going crazy. More people kept reposting it and then it would go viral on other people's pages, too. It helped me a lot. [Then] people were calling me and telling me, "You're in the [official] video!"
What was the process of recording The Plan?
I've been recording my album for [all of last] year. I'd be in the studio back and forth, trying to catch my vibe, get different inspirations. I feel like it's a very complete album; it's exactly what I wanted to portray and showcase. I showed my versatility as an artist, the production is dope. All of the producers who I collaborated with were my genuine people. That was a good way for me to be comfortable and really express myself with the people I was comfortable with.
The reason I called it The Plan was for me to just tell my story and my plan in life. I plan on taking care of my family—you hear that in the album—taking care of my people, my squad, being an inspiration for people in this world and just being myself. I think that's my No. 1—being who I am and saying it's okay to be who you are. And getting my money [laughs].
You talked about your different personas that pop up on the album. Can you describe each different one?
I have my falsetto, pretty R&B DaniLeigh that kind of has that Aaliyah inspiration. You hear that in "Do It To Me," "Blue Chips" and even "Don't Mean Nothing"—but that's my trap Dani, too. So there's that Dani where I'm the sweet, loving '90s girl next door type girl. Then I have my "Don't Mean Nothing," "The Plan," "Be Yourself"—I think that one is more powerful. Every time I'm in that mode, I'm really talking about being a boss. That's what comes across when you hear my tone and how I'm coming off on the track. Then I have my fun Dani that's goofy, like, "I Do It 4" with Lil Yachty, and "Yo No Se," too. That's the Dani you see on Instagram that's happy and dancing out the car [laughs]. And then also my Dominican side, which is the full Spanish record "Yo No Se."
When you approach a record, do you have those personas in mind?
No, the track influences that. It just depends on the vibe I'm in [and] the producer. I know with my boy Retro [Future] I'm about to get my "I Do It 4," "Do It to Me," which is more '90s. He gets that fun, bubbily Dani out of me. [With] Yonni, I'm going to get R&B records that cater to that style. So it just depends really on the production and who I'm working with that'll make me tap into what I'm into.
"Do It To Me" samples Isley Brothers' "Footsteps in the Dark," which Ice Cube famously sampled for his classic song, "It Was A Good Day." Is it a challenge to make a sample that is so iconic your own?
It's super touchy. You gotta be careful with samples—you have to do it right. But Retro already had that beat. It just came so easy. We're like, "Yo, this is about to be a huge song." We knew we did it right as far as touching the sample.
How did you connect with YBN Nahmir and YG for "Can't Relate"?
Me and Nahmir have become really cool. He's one of my good friends now. We met through Instagram first; we met officially at Pins, the bowling alley in North Hollywood. We stayed in contact, chilled a couple of times and we became friends before we did music. I came up with that song and I was like, "Ooh, I want a rap like this." So then I texted him and he was like, "I'm with it." On my project, I wanted two rappers on a song; I thought that'd be fire. YG is another one that's been real supportive. When I was on tour with J. Cole, he was on that tour, so I got to know him then. I sent [the song] to him and he was like, "Yo, I got you."
Have you been able to make a lot of connections with artists in that way from your past as a dancer?
Well, a couple of the artists I have known from back then but now it's different. It's a different approach now. Back then it was like, "Aww, Dani!" Now it's like, respect. And I'm like, "Thanks!" It's dope. It's actually super easy getting features.
Is the creative process different when you're making music in English versus Spanish?
Well, I always have my brother [Bill$] with me when I do my Spanish records. My Spanish is kind of broken, so he'll help me fix it. But it's always a good vibe. I did all of my Spanish records in New York—there was only Dominicans in the room, so the environment is perfect for what we're about to get into.
You co-wrote "Dinero" for J. Lo, Cardi B and DJ Khaled. How did that come about?
So I was working with these producers, Tommy (a.k.a. TBHits) and Scootie. We were working on records for me—we wanted to do a Latin trap kind of song. Scootie whipped up that beat and we wrote that record together. Recorded it. I decided not to take it. Two years later, they hit me up like, "J. Lo wants it." I'm like, "Go ahead! Yes! Cardi B, DJ Khaled." I was like, "Hell yeah."
Are there any other rappers who you'd like to collaborate with?
I want to work with Bryson Tiller, Drake, a song with 6Lack would be dope, too. One with Kodak would be kind of crazy.
What's next for you?
I have my own headlining tour, Be Yourself Tour. It kicks off January 31. Lots of dancing [laughs], I'm super full of energy. I just be jumping like crazy. I like that type of crowd and that type of vibe. Then I have my R&B vibe moments too. It's a vibe. I'll probably drop another project after that. And just keep it going.
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